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Dealing with Disappointment (2018)

Manfred Kets de Vries

. How can we learn to manage our disappointments effectively?

Robert didn’t know what to think. How could he have misjudged the situation so badly? He felt angry, sad, and betrayed. Because of his impending retirement, Robert had carefully groomed a successor to take over his key project. The company’s executives assured him that they agreed with his choice. But when push came to shove, they vetoed his candidate. Instead, they appointed someone else to take the lead — someone Robert didn’t trust to continue the work that had been the capstone of his career. Robert was left kicking himself for not seeing it coming. The sense of futility and bewilderment was almost too much to bear.

 

Many people successfully work through their disappointments. Somehow, they have the strength to take stock of what has happened to them, learn from the incident, and move on. They come out of such disappointments stronger. But others, like Robert, struggle. In these cases, disappointment can even become depression. How can we learn to manage our disappointments effectively?

 

Developmental Influences

 

The way we handle disappointment is related to our developmental history — our relationship with our parents and other early, formative experiences.

 

Some people seek to avoid disappointment by turning into underachievers. They unconsciously set the bar low and avoid taking risks, to prevent themselves or others from being disappointed. Without realizing it, they have decided that the best strategy is not to have high expectations about anything. 

 

Others, following a very different trajectory, seek to avoid disappointment by becoming overachievers. Although they tell themselves that their expectations of perfection are appropriate and realistic, these presumptions turn out not to be true at all. The bar is set far too high to ever make whatever they want to achieve attainable. 

 

Of course, there are also people with a more balanced developmental history. These people usually had parents who didn’t try to be perfect, and didn’t expect their children to be perfect either. By being “good enough” parents, they created a secure base for their children. These children feel secure in their relationships, supported rather than controlled, thereby acquiring the inner strength to cope constructively with the inevitable setbacks in their journey through life.

 

While it’s helpful to know which way we lean, our developmental history is not our destiny. Whatever our developmental history may be — having a secure base or not — disappointment can provide us with valuable information about our beliefs about ourselves, other people, and what makes us happy.

 

Overcoming Disappointment

 

To constructively deal with disappointment, we need to first understand what has happened. Some instances of disappointment are predictable and preventable. But there are others that are unavoidable and beyond our control. To manage disappointment, we need to differentiate between situations that fall within our control and factors that are beyond it. 

 

We also need to check whether our expectations are reasonable. Are we having unrealistically high expectations, and thus aiming too high? Or are we setting our goals too low? If you belong to that group of people who set their expectations too high, working constructively through disappointments may help you to modify expectations. You may learn to move away from perfectionistic standards; you may start to accept what is “good enough.” For those who have set the bar too low, what they should stop doing is hanging on to false beliefs about life like, “There is no more hope” or “Nothing ever works for me.” 

 

When disappointment occurs regularly, it may be advisable to reevaluate our perceptions and behaviors. We can examine whether we are inviting disappointment. Could we have been clearer in our communication of what we were expecting from others? Do we really know what we expect from ourselves? Could we have done something different to arrive at a different outcome? And what support and resources do we have at our disposal to help us move through our feelings of disappointment successfully?

 

When we catch ourselves thinking negatively, we should redirect our energy and focus on positive solutions. Although from an unconscious perspective we may be reluctant to let go of a disappointing experience, in the long run it will be more detrimental to continue holding on. When we become too preoccupied with thinking about situations that have not met our expectations, we only create unnecessary stress.

 

Disappointment is not meant to destroy us. If taken in stride, it can strengthen us and make us better. In spite of its devastating emotional impact, we may even consider encounters with disappointment as journeys toward greater insight and wisdom. But to be able to make these journeys of self-reflection and reevaluation meaningful, we need to look beneath the surface. Only by working through painful associations will we be free from them.

 

HBR, 2018

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